The closed roads and bridges that inconvenienced South Carolina travelers were not the only casualties of the 2015 storm.
Columbia-area restaurants, hotels and motels say they just returned to a sense of business normalcy late last week.
“It rained on Saturday (Oct. 3) and I really thought they had missed the forecast until my son went to work at five in the morning (Sunday) and said, ‘the dumpsters are floating,’ and I knew we had a problem,” said Bobby Williams, president and CEO of Lizard’s Thicket, a popular Columbia-based restaurant chain that features homestyle cooking.
“That Sunday business was off 80 percent,” largely because, on the biggest day of the week for the company, it had to close most of the 17 restaurants in the metropolitan Columbia area, Williams said. “Nobody knew what really was going on. And then Monday, our business was off about 50 percent.”
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All the Lizard’s Thicket restaurants still could not re-open on Tuesday, but things began to pick up after that and business has been really good since, Williams said.
Lizard’s Thicket’s catering service turned out to be a big plus during the storm, he said. The restaurants also served loads of first responders and emergency management personnel nearly around the clock, he said. The company has a contract to serve the S.C. National Guard.
The downtown Columbia hotel market, which caters mostly to business, university and government customers, suffered a big hit from the storm, said Andrew Lucas, chairman of the Greater Columbia Hotel and Motel Association.
“The university was closed, government offices were closed, conferences were canceled, the (USC vs. LSU) football game was canceled – there’s no way to make that up with insurance adjusters and FEMA (staffers)," Lucas said. “In all, the businesses downtown didn’t do real well.”
In discussing the storm's impact on the state, both Williams and Lucas stressed the value of life, personal safety and property protection above profits.
On top of all the rain, of course, restaurants were severely affected by the city-wide boil water advisory that affected everybody on the system – city or county.
“The boil water advisory just scares people,” Lucas said. “Food service was modified and hotels had to do the same things as restaurants. Guests couldn’t brush their teeth or make their coffee, so we provided bottled water for everybody.”
Overall, hotel and motel business in the Columbia area during the week of the flood was down by about 5 percent over the same week last year, Lucas said.
Sean McCrossin, owner of Drip coffee house in Five Points and on Main Street downtown, said business was down the Saturday and Sunday the floods hit Columbia. But he managed to stay open, offering an abbreviated menu.
“I’ll come to work when nobody else shows up, and I make coffee for the town,” McCrossin said. His expresso machines plug directly into the city water line, so Drip couldn’t serve that favorite choice. The boil advisory forced Drip to take water already at boiling temperature in their hot water tank, pour it in pans, then boil it again for 3 to 4 minutes, before transferring it back to another pot to make the coffee.
“It was makeshift, but my staff really, really stepped it up. But it was a long, stressful week-and-a-half. The stressful part is the uncertainty. That sort of wears on you a little bit.”
The uncertainty involved when clean drinking water would be available again.
Drip’s business didn’t go down during the week the storm hit, he said. “The silver lining is (Starbuck’s in Five Points) was closed all week, so we were able to capitalize on their misfortune. Plus, our customers are loyal to us.”
McCrossin, who said he had several employees who suffered property losses during the flood, also noted that a coffee house is supposed to serve as a community place where people can gather to experience a sense of normalcy when the rest of the world seems to be falling apart.
The Lizard’s Thicket restaurants in Lexington County got back up quickly after the floods because drinking water wasn’t as severely affected as in Richland County, Williams said. Six of the 17 stores had to boil water. “We consulted the health department and found out exactly what they wanted us to do, and that’s what we changed to.”
Because of the restrictions, the restaurants could not use the dishwashers and they had to switch to bottled water and canned drinks. The business also switched to styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery.
Restaurants such as Lizard’s Thicket went to downsized menus, catering to items more easily mass-produced, Williams said.
A couple of the Lizard Thicket restaurants were closed during the worst of the storm and its aftermath because of the city’s lack of clean drinking water, Williams said. The Dutch Square Lizard’s Thicket, for example, remained closed during the water outage, but restaurant personnel used the facility to cook large quantities of food that was donated to shelters, the Columbia Housing Authority, and, basically, anybody who asked. Two restaurants remained closed for five days because employees could not get to the restaurant locations, Williams said.
Still, everybody seemed glad to get out again, and Williams, who also is the Greater Columbia Restaurant Association chairman, gave the city high marks for its response in the crisis.
At Michael’s, located downtown on Main Street, employees used bottled water to wash vegetables, said Lisa Weiland, assistant general manager. “We had to buy a whole bunch of bottled water,” she said, noting they turned off the ice machines, stopped making coffee, stopped serving tea, and discontinued using the “fantastic Coke machine that everybody loves so much.” The Coke machine plugs into the city water line.
“We went to cans, all plastic wear and all paper plates – everything disposable,” Weiland said. Michael’s closed on Sunday and Monday of the week of the flooding, and opened on Tuesday with limited options, she said. They missed truck deliveries early in the week of the storm, and only slowly picked back up, Weiland said.
Five employees were affected by the storm, Weiland said. The business is contemplating a wine sale and a musical benefit to give proceeds to affected employees, she said. “We’ve had an expense on the water, and the sodas and the disposable products,” she said. “Business was down, but not as bad as we expected it to be.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-83908